The following is a speech given by Harry Cohen MP (Labour, Leyton and Wanstead) during the parliamentary adjournment debate on July 26th. He uses the speech to draw attention to and quote extensively from a new book by Julia Buxton, called the Political Economy of Narcotics, before calling for a debate of legal regulation of drugs and the failure of prohibition.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I start by offering my humble apologies to you, to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and to the Opposition spokesman? I shall not be able to be here for the winding-up speeches, as I have to go to a local health meeting at a hospital in my constituency. However, I shall read the whole debate with interest.
It is customary to say that we should not adjourn until we have discussed a particular subject. I do want the House to adjourn today, but when we get back, I want us to have a full-scale, grown-up, informed debate on drugs policy, the drugs industry and the drugs trade. I am not talking about pharmaceuticals; I am talking about the illegal drugs trade and its domestic and international ramifications.
I should like to draw to the attention of the House the best book on the subject that I have seen for years. It was published last year, and it is called "The Political Economy of Narcotics" by Julia Buxton, a senior research fellow at the university of Bradford. She gives a history of the subject, along with masses of information and a very good analysis. I got the book from the House of Commons Library, and I can tell that it is a good book because its source, the British Library, demanded it back straight away. I read it through to the end, however, and it should inform the debate. If there is more in-depth analysis of the subject, however, we should bring it forward. Indeed, the Government should bring forward their own in-depth analysis.
Ms Buxton refers to the United Nations and the international drug institutions, and to "institutional crisis and decline". Yet I know, from a parliamentary answer that I have received, that the UK is a major donor to those institutions, and to this failing effort. She refers to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN international drug control programme and the International Narcotics Control Board. She talks of
"the inability of the apparatus to revolutionize its working practices or to refocus policy."
Because of the institutions' dependence on donor countries,
"the mechanisms for debate, policy evaluation and review within the UN were limited and this further impeded the reform of UN and drug control approaches."
She goes on to say that,
"while there might be a lively debate on changing aspects of the national drug laws in some countries, the reality is that national governments have very limited room for manoeuvre in terms of developing domestic drug strategies."
Importantly, she concludes:
"This situation is regrettable because the system of international drug control does not work. All the statistical information shows that, rather than decreasing, the number of people who are producing, distributing and consuming harmful drugs is increasing. The expansion of the trade in drugs has been particularly pronounced since the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s and it has accelerated in line with the globalization process. On that basis alone, drug control policies have failed. Not only have they failed, they are also counter-productive...The current control model has not adapted to the enormous changes that have occurred in production and consumption trends during the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, drug control strategies are no longer simply counter-productive; they are doing more harm than good."
Four types of drugs are dealt with in the book: poppy for opium and heroin; coca for cocaine, crack and other derivatives; synthetic-type drugs such as LSD and ecstasy; cannabis and marijuana.
The book also provides valuable information about the financial value of the drugs sector—estimated by the UN as in the region of $300 billion to $500 billion a year, which is more than the market value of steel, cars, pharmaceuticals, meat, chocolate, wine, wheat, coffee and tea. In 2003, the global retail cannabis market was worth an estimated $140 billion a year; cocaine $70 billion; opiates $65 billion; and synthetics $44 billion.
In fact, the lucrative drugs market of north America accounted for 60 per cent. of amphetamine retail sales; 52 per cent. of ecstasy; and 62 per cent. of cocaine sales. That is interesting because America is the country most insistent on the prohibition policy—yet it has the biggest drugs market. What we have seen economically, because of the failure of the control system, is supply up, prices on the street down, demand up. Clearly, the current prohibition policy has failed.
What worries me most is the connection with crime. As with alcohol prohibition, which led to Al Capone and the US mafia, drug prohibition creates the most dangerous organised criminal gangs and threatens civil society beyond just drugs. For example, in Columbia, three presidential candidates were assassinated as a result of the drugs trade. The drugs industry almost went to war with the state in that particular case.
The book notes that drugs prohibition has been advocated by the US Christian evangelists, who also brought in alcohol prohibition: the US likes bans and prohibition. I see that its policy on drugs is "Just say no". That same phrase, by the way, applies to HIV/AIDS in Africa—but again it is not realistic. The British and US Governments have fallen out over that issue and we recommend supplying condoms. America says no to global abortion rights, but abortion should be a right. I note that our International Development Ministers are to address the Marie Stopes conference—again that shows that we are adopting a different position from that in the US. If the US will not change, we should be prepared to adopt a different policy on drugs. The book also points out that US foreign policy takes precedence over its counter-drugs policy. The US will condone drug states or drug players if that is seen to be in its best interests. That factor will be used against whoever the US regards as its enemy.
The drugs industry and the prohibition strategy, which makes it so profitable, lead to wars—Afghanistan is a clear example—and narco-states such as Columbia. That was the status of that country in the past and perhaps still now. The response is unreasonable militarisation and the mass denial of civil liberties; and environmental damage when crops are sprayed. There are also employment and livelihood issues. Bolivia is cited as having almost half a million people—16 per cent. of the work force at one point—employed in the drug industry. As we know from Afghanistan, people often have no other feasible livelihood. While the trade remains illegal, producers get a good price and the process is highly organised. There would be a better chance for alternative production to be pursued if the bottom were to fall out of the market.
Julia Buxton says that the prohibition conventions of international organisations are out of date. They were brought in before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, before the collapse of communism and before globalisation. She argues that they spread harm while the real policy should be one of reducing harm. She refers to HIV/AIDS and drugs in prisons. Clean needle supply would help to combat the disease, and even safe supply could be justified. That would be better than the current practice, which ends up causing more HIV/AIDS as a result of dirty needles. The choice does not have to be between total prohibition or total liberalisation; Julia Buxton suggests that we could have a third way through regulation and an element of control. That is attractive because it would remove the worst of the criminality.
Let the House consider the equivalent industries that are also often viewed as unsavoury. There is the sex industry, for example. There are some bans, quite rightly in some respects, but that industry is not totally banned; indeed, most of it is legal and highly profitable, however unsavoury. The arms industry—most of us detest it—is not illegal; it is regulated. Tobacco is another example; it is legal, but we are quite rightly imposing ever more constraints on it. Alcohol is licensed. There is a third way, a third option, that could be adopted for drugs policy.
Whenever this matter is discussed, the debate is seldom thorough. It is all about soundbites—a simple matter of whether we are tough or soft on drugs. I admit that drugs have an impact on our streets and even in people's homes when it affects their loved ones. It is, of course, a political issue, but we need to have a proper debate about it. I believe that we need to do what is best for public health and for society as a whole. I urge the House to have that discussion.